During meditation, when our minds start to become truly still, it’s not uncommon to have intense meditative experiences. Though the experience is usually pleasant or even euphoric, now and then it can turn into something negative and even frightening. Occasionally these experiences can be so intense and disturbing that it is enough to cause people to stop meditating altogether.

Fortunately, by learning what triggers these intense experiences, we can prepare ourselves to deal with them when they arise. Whether euphoric, frightening or anywhere in between.

One trigger can be a simple lack of blood flow. Generally speaking, we have up to 12-15 minutes before our minds begin placing extra importance on trying to evaluate our surroundings, making it more difficult when we try to push it for longer periods. And because within 30 minutes, blood begins to pool in our feet, legs, and seat, decreasing the amount of blood flowing through the brain, we can develop light-headedness or even deceptive mental experiences. This period can be even shorter for people with a variety of cardiovascular health issues, or when sitting in positions that can further restrict blood flow. So sticking to the 15 minute rule gives us an optimal time-frame for deeply relaxing safely and more effectively. If you want to go for longer just divide it up into shorter intervals and stretch and move around a little in between.

Another stems from interrupting the thought process, which we’re often trying to do during meditation, which doesn’t always result in the euphoric experiences so many people talk about. The process that we ordinarily refer to as thinking is just making the same two choices over and over again. First, we chose how we interpret a situation, and second, how to react to our own interpretation. When we stop reacting, our normal thought process loop is interrupted, which then allows us to become directly aware of our memories, beliefs, and emotions without having them filtered by our thoughts. The results of the interruption in the processing loop are these intense meditation experiences. As I stated previously, these experiences are usually pleasant in nature, however, this is not always the case. In some cases the memories that are triggered are negative. The chances of having unpleasant experiences go up if we’ve experienced mental/emotional trauma in our lives. For instance, people who’ve endured an abusive environment or who have PTSD are much more likely to have a frightening meditation experience.

Personally, I’ve had sudden flashes of traumatic memories from the Gulf War that I’d completely blocked out as a form of self-protection. These experiences literally took my breath away, filling me with all of the horror, anger, and dismay that I experienced during the initial incidents. Fortunately for me, when I experienced these moments I had already been working on my psychological issues and had developed the tools to deal with these memories as they surfaced.

Though the idea of re-experiencing trauma might put you off of meditation, understand that there are a number of ways in which you can work through and address the bad or frightening meditative experience. Here are a few coping mechanisms that you can try:

  • Change-up the meditation techniques you use. Use techniques that occupy and/or saturate the mind instead of stopping it, such as mindfulness, or deep relaxation techniques. Then return to your previous meditation practice if and when you feel ready.
  • Using alternative self-awareness meditation techniques can be especially useful if you happen to have an aversion to using more formal meditation techniques. They can also be a helpful addition to the more traditional techniques. You may find that practicing a combination of active and reflective self-awareness meditation techniques can be just as effective as using deep meditation techniques. These self-awareness meditations are also a great way to naturally integrate your awareness practice with your normal daily life activities. If you’re not sure how to use them, you can feel free to reach out to me for guidance: that’s what I’m here for!

One important thing to remember is that these experiences are born out of our own memories, emotions, and beliefs. For most people shaking them off is akin to getting back your bearings as you wake up after a bad dream. However, if the flood of memories and emotions are so overwhelming that you’re scared to meditate in fear of what might come up, you should adjust your meditation practice as described above, at least for a while. In such instances, it may also be best to consult with a licensed mental health care professional if you haven’t already.

I hope this helps clear up some of the mystery, and myths, surrounding these meditation experiences.

Be Aware!